Friday, October 28, 2011

Labour backs Tories to criminalise squatting

When 90% of those responding to a consultation on new anti-squatting laws say changes aren’t needed, what does the ConDem government do? Rush through new legislation that makes squatting a criminal offence for the first time, of course.

A new clause tacked on to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill means that anyone found squatting in any residential property would face a year in jail and/or a £5,000 fine.

Even the secretive, unaccountable Association of Chief Police Officers told the Ministry of Justice that the existing law was "broadly in the right place. In its evidence to the government, the Metropolitan Police said that “despite some of the claims in sections of the press, the reality is that there are already more than adequate means for removing squatters.”

That puts the police well to the left of Labour, who are poised to back the government’s sleight of hand. According to reports in The Guardian, Labour intends to back the change to “show their support for homeowners”.

All the housing campaigns and advice organisations were dead against any change and the Law Society and Criminal Bar Association were strongly opposed to new trespass laws.

Labour’s support for any new “law-and-order” measure is intended to curry favour with the right-wing media. With Ed Miliband’s party supporting free schools, the sale of council homes, cuts in welfare benefits and refusing to support unions resisting attacks on their pensions, they are in a race to the bottom with the Tories.

Labour MP John McDonnell MP is increasingly a lone voice against what is practically a national coalition in a whole range of policy areas. Describing the new clause as an “appalling attack on the homeless”, he has urged the party’s rank and file to put pressure on Miliband’s team to oppose the clause, more in hope than in expectation one would think.

All the housing charities, Crisis, Thames Reach, Shelter, Homelessness Link, Housing Justice , St Mungo’s and the Squatters Advisory Service argue that squatting is a symptom of the worsening housing crisis and that for many homeless and vulnerable people squatting is the only way of avoiding rough sleeping.

Leslie Morphy, Crisis chief executive, said: "A year's imprisonment for some of society's most vulnerable and desperate people is draconian and utterly counterproductive. Independent research is clear that 40% of single homeless people have resorted to squatting.”

Recent research for Crisis shows that squatters are among the most vulnerable homeless people and suffer from learning disabilities, mental illness and drug and alcohol problems. Squatters are more likely to suffer from mental illness and drug addiction than other homeless people, according to a new report.

“They squat out of necessity, not choice, in atrocious conditions where they are least likely to be disturbed. These are people that need help, not a year behind bars and a £5,000 fine," said Morphy.

The report also found that 78% of homeless people who squat had approached their council for help and been recognised as homeless but were not entitled to housing as they were not considered a priority.

There are more than 730,000 vacant homes in England alone, according to statistics. Yet most people, whether earning or not, cannot access social housing or afford private rented accommodation, let alone get a mortgage because house prices have gone into orbit.

A social system that cannot provide decent housing for its citizens, that is slashing living standards and driving people into despair to appease the money markets, and is now planning to criminalise those who seek a roof over their heads, simply doesn’t merit support of any kind. And nor does Labour, which endorses these vicious attacks.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

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